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António Medeiros on the Border Between Spain and Portugal

Berghahn has just released Two Sides of One River: Nationalism and Ethnography in Galicia and Portugal, an English translation by Martin Earl of the original Portuguese volume by António Medeiros. This book explores the historical intersections between nationalism and the emergence of ethnographic traditions in Portugal and Galicia, and plays this history against the author’s own ethnographic research in both places at the turn of the 20th century.


The author has selected the following excerpt from the opening lines of the book to provide a glimpse into his experiences of doing fieldwork on and about the border between Portugal and Galicia, and how that fieldwork related to longstanding practices by locals:


“Crossing over into Spain” was a challenge for the boys during family excursions to the mountains in the beginning of the 1970s […] There were no border guards in sight, but the mothers would fret when their sons set even just a single foot on the other side of that vertical border—that “magical” boundary between nation-states (Taussig 1997). In 1993, I was present at a repeat performance of one of those youthful transgressions of old in the same mountainous spot where the two peninsular states are joined […] The border controls had already been abolished between countries of the European Union, and the iron chain that had marked the limit between the two states in that remote place was gone. We crossed the small bridge and walked a few more meters. Upon return we guaranteed the others that we had put a foot outside the country, in Spain—which provoked a lot of teasing and joking for the rest of the afternoon and for some days after.

The day we took the hike nobody made any reference to Galicia, the contiguous region on the other side of the border, these days known officially as the Autonomous Community of Galicia and recognized as one of the historical nationalities that make up the Spanish state […] We never chanced upon any of the graffiti that has in the last few decades begun to appear on Portuguese roads close to the northwest border. Galiza nom é Espanha, or Galiza Ceibe—i.e., “Galicia is not Spain” or “Free Galicia”—are the most common inscriptions, appearing on the walls of bus stops or on traffic signs in fairly deserted areas (1-2).



António Medeiros is a faculty member of the University Institute of Lisbon’s anthropology department, and is as much an historian as an ethnographer of the contemporary. His current research involves a comparative study of the emergence of social anthropology in Spain, based on the life histories of its main figures, a project that parallels a growing interest in the Ladino community of Istanbul.